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The title of this production, being given its off-Broadway premiere by The New Group, certainly delivers truth in advertising. Parodying the notorious tabloid television show, Jerry Springer — The Opera attempts to garner comic mileage from its incongruous mixture of trailer-trash characters singing obscenities to an operatic, nearly sung-through musical score. The show by Richard Thomas (not the actor) and Stewart Lee succeeds in its aspirations — up to a point. But the one-joke nature of the proceedings starts to wear thin even before intermission. And it’s pretty much all downhill from there.
The British musical has taken a long time to travel across the Pond. It premiered in London in 2003, going on to a 609-performance run and winning four Olivier Awards, including best new musical. The show was performed in a 2008 semi-staged concert version at Carnegie Hall that featured Harvey Keitel in the nonsinging title role. But this is its first full production in New York.
Not surprisingly, the musical feels more than a little dated, with the talk-show host no longer on the cultural radar. (I was surprised to learn that the program is still on, and if “Stripper Takedown,” the title of the Feb. 16 broadcast, is any indication, it hasn’t gotten any less trashy.) On the other hand, the musical is really not so much about Springer in particular, but rather the lowbrow pop culture he represents.
The opening number, “Overtly-ture,” instantly signals what we’re in for. The ensemble, many of whom spring up from the front rows of the audience, delivers a stirring musical paean to such subjects as a “bull dyke, lesbian dwarf” and “chick with a dick.” The first act lampoons a typical episode of the once hugely popular talk show, with a procession of coarse characters describing various misdeeds to the bemused host (Terrence Mann, Cats, Les Miserables). The guests include a man cheating on his fiancee with her best friend, another who confesses his fantasy of play-acting as a diaper-wearing infant (when he sings to his girlfriend, “I wanna be your baby,” he means it literally) and an overweight woman who dreams of being a pole dancer.
Naturally, there’s also a security guard (Billy Hepfinger) who clearly has his hands full, and a warm-up man (Will Swenson, Hair, Waitress) who keeps calling Jerry “bro,” much to his boss’s displeasure. It all climaxes with an appearance by a chorus of Ku Klux Klan members singing “This Is My KKK Moment” and Jerry getting shot during an onstage brawl.
The labored second act, which has garnered much controversy over the years, takes place in purgatory and then hell, where Jerry finds himself mediating among such figures as Satan (Swenson again, charmingly sinister), Jesus, the angel Gabriel, Adam and Eve, and even God himself. The humor is of the stale, predictable variety, with Jerry protesting, “I can’t be in purgatory, I’m Jewish” and Jesus brushing Satan off by singing, “Talk to the stigmata.”
What makes the show startling is the incongruity between the music’s lushness and the relentless profanity and vulgarity of the subject matter. But while the audacity of the proceedings proves amusing for a while, the satirical humor never goes anywhere interesting or emotionally resonant.
John Rando’s small-scale staging proves inventive at times, with such clever visual touches as the “On Air” signs changing to read “On Fire” for the second act. But the combination of the large cast (17 members, roughly half that of the original London production) and small venue inevitably make for a cramped, claustrophobic experience. The performers, however, are terrific, from the supporting players who sing beautifully while getting laughs in the process to Swenson’s charismatic turns in his dual roles and Mann’s amusingly hapless Jerry. It does seem a shame, however, that Mann, a superb musical theater performer, doesn’t get a chance to show off his pipes in this speaking-only role.
Ultimately, Jerry Springer —The Opera no longer has the comic edge it once possessed. Partly it’s because the musical is parodying a cultural phenomenon that was essentially a parody itself. And partly because what now purports to be our national conversation is far more outrageous and obscene than anything taking place onstage.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras, Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackman, Billy Hepfinger, Justin Keyes, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terrence Mann, Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Will Swenson, Nichole Turner, Kim Steele
Music and lyrics: Richard Thomas
Book and additional lyrics: Stewart Lee, Richard Thomas
Director: John Rando
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Joshua D. Reid
Projection designer: Olivia Sebesky
Orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen
Presented by The New Group
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